Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars

Author(s): Sonia Faleiro
Publisher: Canongate Books
Pages: 240
ISBN: 9780857861696
ASIN: 0857861697
Release Date: 4th August 2011


The brothels of Bombay are frequently depicted in the photojournalism features of The Sunday Times Magazine and other lifestyle colour supplements. These pictures paint a vivid picture of the abject poverty and depravity of the sex workers' lives, yet they fail to tell the entire story and in reality such scenes merely scrape the surface of an industry of jaw-dropping dimensions. Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Things – Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars explains the hierarchy of these workers. On the lowest rungs of the ladder are the street walkers and the brothel girls, then come the 'Silent Bars' where punters buy beer and are surreptitiously jerked-off under the tables by their waitresses, then there's the hotel escorts who are similar to the high-class escorts available in western cities. But at the top of the tree are the Dance Bar girls. These are young girls, often barely out of their teens, who dance provocatively for monetary gain from a phalanx of men clambering for their attention. These girls tread close to prostitution yet are not available for general hire – they select their punters dependent upon the punter's willingness to spend money on them over a protracted period of time. The girls play hard-to-get – it doesn't pay to be too easy – and string prospective paramours along over a number of wallet-emptying weeks before finally succumbing. Once the client has been selected, usually a middle-class middle-aged business holder, the girl's desire is to snare the punter into leaving his wife and family so she can lead the life she desires.

The surprise is the sheer lack of ambition. These are girls who have an outlook constrained by a conditioning beaten and raped into them from an early age. As a consequence the girls look for little more than an escape – they dream of Bollywood but know that a good guy who can offer them a modicum of comfort and a route away will suffice. Their backgrounds are broken, their childhoods dominated by appalling fathers and brothers who have either used the girls as sex toys or sold them to others to use. Their mothers fare little better – turning a blind eye for fear of reprisals, or running their own brothels.

Central to Faleiro's account is the spiky and chippy Leela – a beautiful and slim 19 year old who ran away from her village aged 13 after being repeatedly gang-raped by the local police. She was offered to these officers of the law as punishment after refusing to perform in her father's porn movie. Due to a series of 'lucky' coincidences she ended up in a Bombay Dance Bar; most girls arriving in the city are targeted by pimps, gangsters and brothel keepers, and once coerced into employment there would be no escape.

In fact, despite Leela's break her life is far from straightforward. Faleiro befriends and documents Leela's travails and those who orbit her. She earns good money for her designer clothing and can afford to keep her idle stay-at-home mother in fine dining. But then legislation is changed in the hands of corrupt politicians and Dance Bars are outlawed forcing Leela to work on the streets where ultimately she is raped by a gang and thrown down a flight of stairs naked to fend for herself. Despite setbacks, Leela has little desire to leave her trade – she knows this is the one occupation, despite the manifest dangers, which could lead to the safety of a middle-class existence.

Faleiro's book is heartbreaking yet not sensationalist. None of the characters are likeable but they engender hope – hope that they can escape from their circumstances. As a reader you will hope on their behalf, and this will lead to frustration – there is no way of knowing how these young lives will pan out but you can't but fear the worse.